All I want for Christmas is words.
Just a scatter of words. Just a handful.
I find my eyes drawn back towards the phone on the wall in the hallway – a retro scene, a lost time, our lost time…
I wait for it to ring.
Instead a silver parcel at my doorstep. Shiny, light-catching foil paper, with a curly white ribbon about it. A little card on the top.
I crouch to read the card.
Merry Christmas. Have a good one. Just a friendly neighbour. Geoff.
I pick up the parcel – a perfect square – and I take it inside and put it in the corner where I know a Christmas tree should be, but where I just… can’t…
This Christmas: bruised and grey, cast in shadow, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s out of my hands.
I glance back at the phone. It all depends.
My sister Carol, says, “Look: you can’t go expecting too much.”
“What do you mean?’
“He might not even be allowed to use the phone.”
“On Christmas Day?”
“Well, you know, I don’t even know how they do these things… you know…”
In prison. This elephant spreads throughout the room, shooting grey tendrils out in all directions, barbed, and the barbs embed themselves in the wallpaper, they become a maze of ducking and diving that we’ve all got to do. And this is just amongst family.
In the office the silence runs deeper and harder. I’m not sure if its that I see it in their eyes, or even just that I imagine it, that I put in there myself. But the awareness is so always. The words are measured.
It’s not that bad! It’s not like he’s a freakin’ murderer!
Angus, kissing my cheek, cheeks wet with both of our tears. “Just two years, Mum. It’ll be all right.”
And I wonder: did I do this? Wasn’t it my choice to have an only child? Because I could have hunted one down, couldn’t I? I could have found a step-daddy out there somewhere and reeled him in, presented him like a gift? And then – all in good –the half-sisters and half-brothers would start flowing. And maybe that would have made a difference of a kind: less wild, more connected, more sure of himself and who he was. Another like Angus – not just him and his mum.
I could have made that happen.
“Oh, don’t,” Carol keeps telling me.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says my friend Mindy. “You’re a great mum. You brought that boy up well.”
The elephant raises its trunk.
“You know it takes a village. That’s not just a saying, it’s the truth. There’s so many other influences out there. How’s a mum supposed to compete? How’s she supposed to juggle all that?” Mindy, with no children of her own, and no nieces and no nephews, cordoned off in such an adult world.
Well, Mindy’s going to spend her Christmas with her twin sister and a cousin. Close like only twins get. She’s apologetic and she gives me a huge red-wrapped present which emerges as a beautiful, padded, velvet scarf, with matching earrings, and a necklace. She’s full of hugs – but of course… her family… every year. And her cousin dealing with so much…
And Carol has her son to go to – the son who didn’t go off any rails, who has a successful career and a baby on the way. “Well, for goodness sake, Eva, why don’t you just come with me?”
But that’s their time. Not mine. I don’t want to intrude. Okay, truth: I don’t want to be pitied, I don’t want the big-eyed stares and the moments of awkwardness.
Just the phone. Silent. In the hallway.
I run into Geoff, up in the garden, on the roof.
“Hey, hey, neighbour.” He grins and waves to me. He’s working on the tomato plants.
He’s got a thing for me. I’m pretty sure.
“Hey, I left you…”
“I got it.”
“Great. Sometimes, this building… I probably shouldn’t have taken a chance.”
“It’s very nice of you.”
“Well, I am nice. Ask anyone. I can give you references. Hey, how goes your garden?”
“I… I haven’t had much time of late. Gone to weed a bit, to be honest.”
There’s a patch on the roof, for every flat in the building. I should just rent the damn thing out.
But Geoff: “We can fix that right up. Green thumbs.” He holds up his hands. “Some people say ‘all thumbs’, but hey, you know…”
I give him my wan little smile, polite but discouraging, and I feel bad doing it: “Thanks, Geoff,” I say as if he’s disappointed me somehow. And I feel bad about that too.
It’s late. Christmas Eve. The phone is silent.
Then it’s bright yellow, a Christmas sunrise. I watch TV. I eat microwave chicken. I cry some. I watch the sunset.
The phone jolts me out of a half-doze.
Oh, please, please, please.
His voice is like a familiar record playing, it’s like the vinyl you played in childhood until you could remember the unique little defects on your copy precisely. You knew that this scratch there, and this stutter there, those were yours, yours alone, and they didn’t have to be perfect, and they didn’t have to be crystal clear: in fact, it was better that they weren’t. You wore them like an old, patched jersey.
I jump on the receiver, almost yanking the whole unit off. “Hello?”
Another voice, “will you accept this call from…?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“It’s me. It’s me, Angus.”
“I told you I’d call on Christmas Day.”
Tears blur everything, they leak into my voice. “I know you did, Oh, I know. It’s just so good to hear the sound of you.”
“I’m sorry. Getting myself in here.”
“It’s all right, it’s all right. Don’t let’s talk about that.”
“I’ve been counting the days.”
So many days. “So have I.”
We do talk about that: is he thin? Is he safe? Is he eating enough? Are they giving him things to do? Does anybody hurt him? What about good behaviour, or training courses, anything?
“Working on it,” the smile in his voice is close to tears.
“Sweetheart, I know you are. I know. You’ll come home and it’ll all be better.”
“I have to go. I have a limit, you see…”
“I’ll make the trip up, I’ll come see you.”
“When you can. You can’t afford…”
“I don’t care.”
“I do have to go. Mum, I love you.”
Words. A handful of words. All I wanted for Christmas.
I hang the phone up softly. I go over to a big silver package and pull apart the bow. There’s a fancy coffee machine gleaming out of from amongst the wrapping paper and Styrofoam curls. There’s a note on the top: Just remember. Always there for you. Whatever you need. Christmas or any day. Love, Geoff.
A few words, in black pen. A little flourish at the end of the last ‘f’
I put my shoes on and scurry over to 12D. I knock on the door, doing my best not to think this through. He must have family, friends, a life being lived. But he answers the door in slippers and mild surprise.
I try to lean casually against the doorframe: “I just thought maybe you’d like to come over for coffee.”
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work